I read a blog on philly.com, written by Faye Flam entitled “A Simple Solution to the Should We Teach Algebra Teaching Conundrum”. She proposes a solution that got me thinking about a crucial question in mathematics teaching in general that seems to cause so much pain in both teachers and students.
Students (and teachers) seem to be under so much pressure all of the time, and, if we know that increased pressure creates an adverse learning environment, how do we decrease the pressure without sacrificing content?
I am thinking that pressure comes in many forms for students, and for teachers. There is assessment pressure; a student’s fear of not knowing, of not studying the right thing, of just not being good enough. Students have a fear of low grades that comes from themselves, their parents, college counselors, and even school expectations. There is ever-present time pressure, both for them (I have so much to do) and me (they-didn’t-understand-what-I-did-today-then-homework-tonight-is-a-disaster-in-waiting). I feel pressure from within (I really want the students to succeed, and feel terrible if they don’t) and without (parents and school expectations.) So, here are some ideas I’m toying with using in my classroom this year, learned from recent workshops and conferences. My thanks, up front, to the Center for Innovative Teaching and Henri Picciotto.
- Paired or Group Assessment. Students assigned to pairs or groups of 3 to work out an assessment (standard test or quiz) together. Instead of trying to see if kids are cheating, I can watch (even record) their collaborative efforts. I think that students, knowing in advance that they will test together, may also study together. They will plan before the test, develop strategies, and hopefully focus on the mathematics. I think students will think less about grades, and will be less fearful.
- Separating homework from classwork. It was suggested that if kids are doing homework that is not entirely connected to what happened today in class, then there is a sense of relief on the student’s part that it is ok if they didn’t understand everything in class. The way I’m going to try this is, as Henri Picciotto suggested, teach content item A (say, exponentials) in first week, and refer to that in homework in week 2 while I am teaching content item B (say, sequences). The two items don’t need to be connected, and may be better for the student if one doesn’t depend on the other.
- Using writing better: I have often employed writing in journals and reflections on tests; I believe that a class blog and individual shared documents can help me and the students identify issues and trouble spots. The research presented in the January 14, 2011 article in SCIENCE entitled ‘Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom’ suggests that prior to an assessment, students do better if they write about their anxiety about the test they’re about to take, they will do better. Worth trying! (see Science, registration required to view article.)
- Test corrections/retesting. I thought of myself as being pretty progressive, given that I evaluate all of my tests using a rubric, and students write corrections, reflections, and a self-assessment. What I think is missing is giving students the opportunity to show mastery of the material. I am going to offer to student the opportunity to show mastery using other means, if they wish. This could be a verbal test/discussion with me, a video of themselves explaining how to do the math they need to learn, creating a tutorial for other students, etc. Time consuming, certainly, but perhaps more authentic then me rewriting a test and having them go at it.
- Giving them the answers, but not the solutions. My students tell me that they come up with all kinds of ways to figure out problems on homework by ‘reverse-engineering’ from the answers. So occasionally I will give them both the question and the answer, and see how they connect the two.
- Use of techy-tools to give better feedback: I know about student-response systems (like Socrative, Nearpod, eclicker, etc.) and how I can use them to help students know what they know. I just need to use them!
- Backchanneling: Up to now, I have been terrified of the cellphone in my classroom. My time at ISTE12 taught me that I can use this tool that all the kids have, along with TodaysMeeting or PollEverywhere to ask students to give on-the-fly feedback to what is happening in class. The idea that I can go back through all of those questions (even the one that asks when the quiz is being returned) later and answer them relieves some pressure to answer every question during the class period.
- Keeping it positive. Sounds easy, but I tend to focus on what needs to be improved, rather than celebrating what was awesome. If I give them global reports about how they are ‘outlearning’ last year’s class or how much they’ve improved since the beginning of the unit, then I have to believe they will feel less pressure. I saw a youtube video about linking positivity to happiness, with the result being better performance by Shawn Achor (The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance ) This reaffirms the idea that getting students to focus on positivity through specific actions can shift their view about what they’re learning, and perhaps about mathematics as a subject.